29 May 2011

Memorial Day

Five years ago, I accompanied my friend Lisa Ramaci to Greenwood Cemetary. We were there for three reasons, two small and one unimaginably large:
!)We both wanted to see the Civil War re-enactors in a ceremony honoring the Union Soldiers laid to rest in Brooklyn's most history-laden graveyard;
2) I wanted to find the grave of my great-(times ten!-)-grandfather, who had fought in the Fighting 19th Irish Brigade out of NYC, and who won the Congressional Medal of Honor at Gettysburg [and whom I like to think about when my own store of bravery runs low...]; and, finally and most most importantly,
3) to go spend time with her husband. her husband was a brilliant Journalist named Steven Vincent, who went to Iraq at the very beginning, to make sure he knew what he was writing about. His grave now sits on a sunny hillside, lit by birdsong and tended by breezes. There is a bravery in needing to tell the truth, that doesn't let consequences stop it. Steven had that bravery.

I have been insanely lucky in my life to know almost nothing of war, except from the witness of others. I wouldn't, and won't, get into any discussions about war. All I can do, is respect, honor, be grateful for, and remember the voices, stories, and sacrifices, of those who know, too well, what I don't know at all.


When I was barely sentient--that is to say, about 17- I fell in love with a much older musician, in chicago. i was attracted equally by his brilliant songwriting, and a gravitas and wisdom that I didn't understand, but enjoyed, Someone told me he had fought in the Vietnam war, been decorated, but to me that was such a far-off time, that the information sort of bounced off me...and He certainly never mentioned it. But sometimes? While sleeping? he would yell something; not very often-but often enough to the "eedjit" I was- he would yell and jump to a standing poisition,full defensive readiness, all while sleeping.

When we visited his mother for the first time,she took me aside one day when he was out, and told me, quietly, about his Vietnam service. I couldn't understand much, being a 17 year old from a sheltered background. I didn't know what a "tunnel rat" was. I didn't know any of the terms he said in his sleep. I did find out,  from very straightforward empirical evidence, that everything she had told me was true.
I also knew that our fights were much more loaded- carried much more baggage, somehow--than other couples' usual tiffs about "who didn't do the dishes." Sometimes, I would not be able to take the intensity, and would go sit in a greek diner on North Clark Street (this was in Chicago) and order food I couldn't touch,and for that matter, could barely pay for. I was in over my head. I was a model who sang and did Improv. I didn't have a receptor for this kind of unintentional darkness. I wanted to understand. But didn't know how...and with the self-absorption of pretty youth, secretly felt I shouldn't have to. Poor me, I thought. And occasionally, "Poor him". Hey- I was 16.

One night, I had retreated at the diner, in a huge booth that dwarfed my huddled, too-slender self. I'd turned my head away to look out the window, because I didn't want the tears that were falling onto my cooling cheeseburger, to attract attention from the couples munching contentedly around me. But I didn't know what to do. Love is a start, but as Auden once said "love gave the power but took the will" to understand.

There was an attractive woman, at a nearby table. She and her companion, a dignified and mustachio'd man in a wheelchair, were talking intently, and laughing, but also obviously having a serious discussion, the kind where everyone gets animated and starts interrupting each other enthusiastically. I didn't understand why they kept glancing over, although now I know it was because truly kind people have a high sensitivity to-and empathy for-other people's distress.

I looked out the dark window and watched the cars go by and sniffled, surreptiously. My reverie was interrupted by the sound of a very kind voice saying "Hi. Are you okay?"

I smiled brightly and lied "I'm fine."  she burst out laughing and wordlessly handed me her compact. In the mirror, I saw that my mascara had run down my entire face. Every tear had its own traceable dark faultline. -I grinned and handed the mirror back.

"Well, maybe not TOTALLY fine," I admitted ruefully.

She said, "sit with us. We'd like your company. Maybe it'll cheer you up. We're safe." Her face was remarkable for a kind of serenity that seemed hard earned...the kind of peace you have to work at for years to achieve, although she wasn't in the least old or toughlooking.

"well...Okay. Thank you. Um... promise you won't drug me and put me onto a boat to Buenos Aires, bound for a strange new life in anonymous houses of joy? I just have to check," I asked.

She blinked. Not sure she was expecting that from a weepy 17 year old model. But she was great. She said, "Not until you finish your cheeseburger, anyway," and we grinned at each other and i got up and joined them.

I think her name was Joy. I might be wrong. His name was Ron. I didn't get his last name, so he spelled it for me, on request. "K-o-v-i-c". (I guessed it was.. Czech?) He had a quality I haven't encountered much, and don't know how to describe ...that's not a writerly cop-out [well, okay-yes it is!]  I just remember a tired, funny, bone deep gentleness, and a patience that I wouldn't have guessed at from his big guy appearance.  Whatever it was? We just really hit it off.

I couldn't have known this, but the "Universe/God/The Big Love" or whatever you call the force that knows us better than we know ourselves, was very specific in its blessings that evening, in a Chicago diner. Ron was a Vietnam vet. His life was the basis for a great, very powerful film, called "Born on the Fourth Of July." He had a story behind him that contained pain, and courage, and a way of being ethical , that I still can barely understand, but admire beyond telling.
Somehow, even though at the time I was NOT a very confessional chick, Ron and Joy asked the right questions, without being too personal. In fact, they were so tactful that talking about what was going on, seemed like MY idea, to me.

And boy did they help. Maybe the hardest thing to do in conversation with someone so mucH younger, so much emotionally less experienced, is to meet that person at her level of understanding. No preaching, no scolding, no lofty judgmental pronouncements that would have bounced off my ears anyway. What they both did, was talk to me at my own level: a loving, too-young-for-this-but-well-intentioned young woman who had a brain that had lots of sparkle and buzz but not a lot of focus. We stayed there for three hours, telling jokes and talking about Chicago and food and laughing our asses off. And somehow, when I left, I had numbers to call that would help me. And help my friend get help. I never even noticed when that happened...who remembers having someone write down helpful numbers on a piece of paper and hand them to you, when you're all laughing about the fact that the Lemon Meringue Pie slice the waiter has just put down, is bigger than the table it sits on?

We talked on the phone a few times. I don't think he'd remember me. But he helped so very much.

Flash Forward: Today, I'm friends again with my then-boyfriend, who got back on his feet so successfully that he has to move to Switzerland so his taxes aren't so high, and who spends his summers at his palace in Italy. He reclaimed his best self in more important ways, as well, by being a great father and the most trustworthy friend imaginable. In fact, he and his family very kindly invited me on a fishing trip next week, and  am really looking forward to a week of Scrabble, terrible puns, unlimited swimming and having his kids kick my ass at Badminton and croquet.

When I'm in Brooklyn, I sometimes go and visit Steve. I tell him how much I enjoyed his company, his writing, his swashbuckling sartorial flourishes, and his kindness. I thank him for bearing witness, knowing, as he did, what might happen.

I don't ask him about war. I don't feel i have that right.

Then? I sit quietly and breathe in the birdsong. The silence. The miracle- of being able to live in safety. I so try not to take it for granted...peace.